31 March 2010

Ansel Herz : Haiti Looking More Like a War Zone

Woman walks along hurricane-devastated street in Port-au-Prince, Wednesday, March 24, 2010. Photo by Jorge Saenz / AP.

Haiti today:
Looking more and more like a war zone
"The U.N. is a big, huge, heavy bureaucracy. And bureaucracies do not work well in places that need flexibility and adaptation." -- Jean Luc "Djaloki" Dessables, Haiti Response Coalition
By Ansel Herz / March 31, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- On an empty road in Cite Militaire, an industrial zone across from the slums of Cite Soleil, a group of women are gathered around a single white sack of U.S. rice. The rice was handed out Monday morning at a food distribution center by the Christian relief group World Vision.

According to witnesses, during the distribution U.N. peacekeeping troops sprayed tear gas on the crowd.

"Haitians know that's the way they act with us. They treat us like animals," said Lourette Elris, as she divided the rice amongst the women. "They gave us the food, we were on our way home, then the troops threw tear gas at us. We finished receiving the food, we weren't disorderly. "

Some 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers, known by the acronym MINUSTAH, have occupied Haiti since 2004, including 7,000 soldiers of which the majority are Brazilian. The mission has been dogged by accusations of human rights violations.

"It's time to begin thinking about changing the nature of MINUSTAH's mission," Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim told the Brazilian newspaper O Estado after the January earthquake struck Haiti.

"MINUSTAH's mandate is to maintain the peace, that is, security, but the U.N. needs to realise that its mission is no longer solely to strengthen security but also to build the infrastructure," he said.

So far, there's no evidence of a shift in policy.

"Red zones are no-go zones, you're not supposed to be there whatsoever," said Regine Zamor, a Haitian-American who arrived days after the earthquake to find her family. She's been coordinating among NGOs to distribute aid in Carrefour Feille, one of the hardest-hit areas of the city.

"We only found out for folks in our community that it was a red zone because we weren't getting any help," she said. "That green, yellow, and red zoning actually comes from maps when there's war, but there's no war here in Haiti."

Even the famous Oloffson Hotel in downtown Port-Au-Prince is part of the red zone, according to Zamor and the hotel's outspoken owner, Richard Morse.

U.N. spokesperson George Ola-Davies provided IPS with a copy of a security zoning map, showing red zones only over the slum areas of Cite Soleil and Bel Air.

"Security measures start with oneself, so everyone's been advised to be cautious," he said. "Kidnapping is not a new phenomenon in Haiti. It was at a peak at one time, then it went down. Now it's starting again."

Two Doctors Without Borders staff members were kidnapped this month in Petionville, an upscale district zoned as green on the security map -- then released for a ransom.

Meanwhile at the U.N. headquarters near the airport, Haitians looking to coordinate relief efforts with aid agencies are routinely turned away at the gate, if they don't possess U.N. passes.

The mayor of Cite Soleil and a camp committee member from Leogane were nearly blocked from entering the base, according to Emilie Parry, co-author of a Refugees International report blasting the U.N. for not involving Haitian community-based organizations in the relief effort.

"We were concerned they would be kicked out," Parry said. "So we walked with them to try and identify agencies and people working in their communities -- there weren't many. Like most others, they were turned away and went home empty-handed."

U.N. spokesperson Ola-Davies said any Haitian who has an appointment can enter the base. Dozens of shining white Toyota and Nissan sport utility vehicles shuttling aid workers around the city enter and exit the base each day.

"The U.N. is a big, huge, heavy bureaucracy. And bureaucracies do not work well in places that need flexibility and adaptation. Haiti is one of those places," said Jean Luc "Djaloki" Dessables, co-coordinator of the Haiti Response Coalition, a group that includes small Haitian organisations.

The Haiti donors' conference begins Wednesday at U.N. headquarters in New York City. The Haitian government estimates 11.5 billion dollars are required to recover from the quake.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission spends 700 million dollars annually. A new Brazilian force commander was appointed this month, while the number of U.S. soldiers on the island dwindles further.

In Potay, a neighborhood near downtown Port-Au-Prince, a dozen U.S. soldiers toting automatic weapons walked past men drinking beer on a stoop.

Wearing jeans and a black vest, Brital, one of Haiti's most well-known rappers with the Barikad Crew, watched them go past his collapsed home.

"I don't think we need soldiers with guns. We need engineers the most," he said. "I'd prefer to see soldiers who could educate instead of those with guns. Soldiers that can come and build roads, bridges, universities and hospitals."

U.S. Senator Chris Dodd proposed Monday placing Haiti under a trusteeship system and broadening the U.N. mission in the country. He wrote in the Miami Herald that Haiti should not be occupied by foreign powers, but that the country is incapable of leading its own reconstruction.

[Ansel Herz, a former Austin activist, is a multimedia journalist and web designer based in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. He blogs at Mediahacker. This article was distributed by IPS.]

Thanks to David Holmes Morris / The Rag Blog

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30 March 2010

David P. Hamilton : On My Retirement from Political Activism

David Hamilton at MDS anti-war vigil in Austin, December, 2008. Photo by Sally Hamilton / The Rag Blog.

On my retirement from political activism

By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / March 30, 2010

Last Sunday, the “health care reform” bill passed in the House of Representatives with most Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans voting against. Did you notice that stocks in pharmaceuticals and the health insurance industries both climbed the next day?

This comprehensive health care reform is none of the above. The struggle for its passage was pure theater on several levels. Most Democrats really don't support it and most Republicans really don’t oppose it. Most Democrats would prefer a public option, Medicare being allowed to negotiate drug prices, re-importation of drugs from Canada and the like, but there aren’t enough votes independent of corporate lobbyists to pass any of that, so they opt for a charade with frills.

The Republicans know that the chief beneficiaries of this legislation are Big Pharma and the health insurance industry, but they don’t want their fingerprints on it for purely partisan political reasons. They do want another excuse to rally their legions by railing at Democrats, who in this case happen to be taking the lead as corporate lackeys.

It’s got plenty of passion, drama and irony, but it’s sound and furry signifying very little to do with better health care. The invective is primarily posturing to gain political advantage and the wealth and power associated with being the favored capitalist class toady of the moment.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama appeared before 20,000 in the rain in Austin, February 23, 2008. Photo from the Texas Observer.

Our president, who I worked hard to elect and who repeatedly called himself a “progressive” when he spoke to Austin rallies in 2008, is at least vastly exaggerating about what a great reform this is. Contrary to what you might hear, it does not significantly change the health care system in the one manner that matters most, shifting more of it into the public sector.

It does not establish health care as a right. Instead, buying private health insurance is established as a legal obligation. Meanwhile, Dennis Kucinich, after much pontification, does his usual roll over act in compliance with the party leadership.

The principal outrage is that now, thanks to Democrats, for the first time the federal government will mandate that you have to buy the products of the health insurance industry or face the wrath of the IRS. It will be illegal for you not to give 8% of your annual income to the insurance cartel in perpetuity.

In some countries, the government takes over corrupt and failing industries. In America, the corrupt and failing industrialists take over big slices of government. The Republicans are quite correct to question whether the mandate provision of the health care legislation is unconstitutional and the proto-fascist majority on the “Supreme” Court they created may rule in their favor, especially given that there seems to be very little precedent.

The overriding conclusion from all this is that our federal and state governments are almost totally in the pocket of the corporate capitalist ruling class, now more so than ever. U.S. politics has become a question about how one should relate to squabbles within the ruling class. Corporate ownership of the political system has expanded over our lifetimes and now its control is so complete that U.S. democracy is irretrievably corrupted.

It is profoundly naïve to expect the federal government to do anything truly progressive related to the country’s economic functioning within the confines of this hegemony. It is not realistic to think that you or any combination of non-ruling class individuals can have any serious impact on U.S. politics above a local level. Without access to major capital and status among the big bourgeoisie, you’re not a player.

With the recent Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to contribute unlimited amounts to political campaigns, U.S. democracy is dead as a doornail, the coffin is welded shut and buried deep. You can spend all your remaining days calling your congressional representative, demonstrating, donating to progressive candidates, and writing letters to the editor, but your efforts will have little positive effect except perhaps on yourself.

About all that could be realistically expected is to keep our intellectual tradition alive. You may counter that once we did make a significant difference. True or not, that was then and this is now.

Obama: fading hope. Photo by Steve Rhodes / Flickr.

There are some areas where there will be positive change because such changes are not contradictory to capitalist domination. Gay rights is a good example and hardly insignificant. Now that “health care reform” has passed, Obama may even take pen in hand and do what he promised to do and what he should have done already by signing an executive order ending “don’t ask, don’t tell." Thanks to the great coming out that we’ve seen over the past few decades, no attitudinal trend is more bullish than the growing acceptance of the gay/lesbian community.

Immigration reform will take place because the immigrants are coming anyway, capitalists like cheap labor, and both parties want the ever-growing Latino vote. The “drug war” will be diminished by the decriminalization of marijuana, because its continuation only fuels drug cartels, destabilizes nearby countries with piles of corpses, and deprives established capitalists the opportunity to reap profits legally.

Besides, in this brave new world, pot might fill the role of “soma." As Huxley fittingly said of soma, it has “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol [with] none of their defects." Who cares if we live in a country where the government is a wholly owned subsidiary of the capitalist class and operates primarily in its service, at least we can get high.

In a tangentially related matter, the left in France just drubbed Sarkozy’s rightists in regional elections and then staged a nationwide strike in protest of his policies. This is occurring on the eve of my wife and I blowing years of savings by going to France for two months in celebration of my recovery from what medical authorities assured me was an incurable disease.

The question always arises when visiting France: why don’t we just stay there? It’s a question I’ve struggled with for years and the answer remains unchanged. Sally still has a rewarding career, but only here. We now have two darling grandchildren living here and our Guatemalan textile business is here and resists transplantation. In addition, there are the nearly 50 years of accumulated Austin friends. We could never be so much a part of another community.

The quandary is how to continue living in the increasingly repugnant U.S. and at the same time maintain one’s sanity and low blood pressure -- without being angry about one travesty or another on a daily basis. One element of my solution is to retire from political activism and diminish my focus on political concerns. Turn off the cable pundits. Stop reading leftist blogs (except this one!). No more demonstrations of less than 10,000. No more “organizing," my activism relegated to the occasional documentation of errant thoughts.

I used to think that political activism was the ideal existential raison d’etre. But with my growing awareness of its futility, for me if not for others, that will no longer suffice. I’m 66 and it’s time to pass the torch, which in my hands now only smolders.

I credit Barack Obama with bringing me to these conclusions. We worked hard for him. We helped lead his campaign in our suburban precinct in this southern state and he carried it by 2 to 1. We drank champagne with a house full of neighbors at his inauguration. It has been precipitously down hill ever since, illusions crashing right and left.

Number one on my list of expectations for his administration was health care reform; one that included an expanded public sector. Instead, we got an expanded private sector, with which our relationship is now obligatory. You can no longer be denied insurance because of a pre-existing condition. Instead, such individuals will be sent to high-risk pools where, between premiums and the attendant costs, “coverage” will be unaffordable for most eligible Americans.

Their version of universal health care is to universalize bad “coverage” by “mandating” people to make lifetime continuous payments to private insurance companies. Talk about your subsidized industry! This pro-capitalist, private sector fealty on Obama’s part is hardly new, his having begun his term by exceeding even Bush’s generosity to Wall Street.

And speaking of exceeding Bush, we now have more troops fighting in more (mostly Muslim) countries than we did during the Bush II administration. I naively expected some subtle diminution of American militarism. No such luck.

But how about his historic break with Israel’s Likud? Talk's cheap and Obama is mainly talk.

The fall of Obama has been the icing on the cake.

Some of us had lunch with Bill Ayers last week and, unlike Obama, we are all proud to call him our friend. He continues to have a thoughtful analysis of the historical situation. He observed that promising political activism was taking place among the rubble of Detroit. People are growing -- vegetables and community. They don’t focus on pleading for their bankrupt government to take action. They take action among themselves by building local collectives in food, transportation, and security.

However much potential this approach might have to prolong our survival, it also has its drawbacks. In Guatemala, when the police take a bribe and let some career criminal out of jail, the locals have been known to hang and/or incinerate the alleged miscreant in front of the police station along with a few police cars. So much for due process. But, it is only on these most basic levels that one can maintain a realistic political identity.

Because my incurable disease disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared and my VA doctor and debate partner says it might return, my motto has become “do it now.” It’s time for me to get to work on that “bucket list” with a vengeance. Political activism is notable in its absence. It does not remain self-actualizing enough and I’m a privileged white guy with pensions, socialist health care, and choices.

So I’m choosing grandchildren and gardening, Antigua, Guatemala and Lake Atitlán, classic literature and friends, Sally and Paris, and compliance with the dictates of my personal trainer, Birdie Poundpooch; indulgences that will have to suffice during my remaining years of kicking out the jams.

[David P. Hamilton has been a political activist in Austin since the early Seventies when he worked with SDS and wrote for The Rag, Austin's underground newspaper.]

Above, Sally and David Hamilton at "Bring out the Dogs" demonstration against U.S. Sen. John (Corn Dawg) Cornyn, Austin, February 15, 2008. Photo by Carlos Lowry / The Rag Blog. Below, Chicago Three (L-R): David Hamilton and The Rag Blog's Thorne Dreyer and Jim Retherford at the Chicago Art Institute, November 11, 2007, during MDS Convergence.

Also see "Alice Embree on Political Activism: Carry it On" by Alice Embree / The Rag Blog / April 6, 2010

The Rag Blog

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Tom Hayden : The Rising Cost of College

Students at the State University of New York protest tuition hikes, November, 2009. Photo from Albany Times Union

We can't afford to be quiet
About the rising cost of college

By Tom Hayden / The Rag Blog / March 30, 2010
"There are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us..."
That heartfelt plea for university reform, issued in 1969, is striking because it was voiced by Hillary Rodham, a student at Wellesley College. Are there any lessons or comparisons to be drawn from those turbulent times for the students and faculty members who are today demonstrating against the rising cost of higher education? As a student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in those days and an itinerant sociologist at Scripps College now, I believe we can look to the past as legacy but not as blueprint.

The current generation of young people deserves admiration for the contributions they already have made: creating hip-hop culture, winning sweatshop-free purchasing agreements, leading online advocacy groups like MoveOn.org, and for being the backbone of Barack Obama's unprecedented volunteer campaign. They will be the cradle of social activism for the next 20 years.

But the challenges they face on their campuses are far different from those of my generation, and perhaps more profound. Tuition at Michigan in 1960 cost less than $150 per semester. So I could obtain my degree, edit the student newspaper, go south to work in the civil-rights movement for two years, return and enter graduate school, and never feel that I was falling behind in the competitive economic rat race that young Hillary spoke out against.

Students today, however -- even those who hold two part-time jobs -- fall tens of thousands of dollars into debt, a burden that limits their career choices. Dropping out for social activism brings competitive disadvantage. The speedup of academic pressures dries up discretionary time that used to go to dreaming and exploring. Campuses are crowded with scrambling multitaskers for the most part too busy to protest the pace. Meanwhile, increases in the cost of college exceed inflation every year, intensifying the squeeze.

We had different grievances. The curriculum was often irrelevant to the social crisis we perceived ourselves inheriting; it needed reform. Students were powerless under the paternal doctrine of in loco parentis; we wanted rights. Students were disenfranchised, even though men could be drafted; we needed the vote and alternatives to the draft.

Structurally excluded, we went to the streets, to the outside, demanding change on the inside. It's an exaggeration, but only after strikes, rioting, and taking over buildings did colleges offer the mainstream menu of women's studies; black, Latino and Asian studies; queer studies; and environmental programs that they do today.

Now most students read Howard Zinn in history classes; back then Zinn was fired from Spelman College for marching with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

In those days, university administrators were personified by the impersonal managerial elites depicted by C. Wright Mills, our sociologist hero. In recent decades, the multiversity has been succeeded by a privatized hybrid institution enmeshed in Wall Street machinations, a development epitomized by the former Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers. Excessive financial risk-taking has resulted in depleted portfolios everywhere.

UT students lead a massive march against the War in Vietnam, May 8, 1970, in Austin. Photo from University of Texas / Houston Chronicle.

No longer independent, higher education has succumbed to the political pressures of regents and trustees who all too often are tied to banks and corporations. For an example of this inbred conservatism, consider a recent survey that showed the public favoring the use of federal stimulus money to keep tuition down, even if that meant leaving less money for operations. In response, a spokesman for the American Council on Education said, "The public is not always right."

The question for today's students is not whether they can read Noam Chomsky, Anaïs Nin, or Zinn, but whether they can afford to.

The recent outbreak of protests on hundreds of campuses is a promising sign that economic populism will be a central dynamic in any student movement of the future. Since many of the most active protesters today are students of color, there is greater potential for a coalition that includes inner-city taxpaying communities than there was when so many of the militants were from affluent suburbs.

Making college less affordable just as a large number of qualified aspirants are emerging from disadvantaged minority communities is an explosive issue. The numbers of women in college are larger than in the past, which might also widen the coalition.

The value of the past lies in remembering how recently higher education was affordable, even cheap. It's not inevitable that a college education today costs so much. Undergraduate education is virtually free at the Sorbonne or the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and a year at Oxford costs no more than community colleges charge here.

The choices we have made as a country -- to relentlessly privatize our public institutions; to eventually spend three trillion dollars, by some estimates, on the war in Iraq instead of on our public universities; to bail out billionaires on Wall Street while hitting students and their families with repeated tuition increases -- are choices with consequences that we have to rethink or accept.

As recently as 1982, when I entered the California State Assembly, my first battle as a naïve new legislator was against fee increases at community colleges, which then were proudly free and accessible.

Under President Ronald Reagan and Gov. George Deukmejian, the (Republican) lobbyists for the colleges supported first-time fee increases to avoid budget cuts. Their motivation was not merely budgetary but also a matter of ideological principle. Nothing, they said, should be free in life, which meant that investment in public colleges and universities should be replaced by a consumer-marketplace approach.

Most of the Democrats went along when they were promised that the fees would be temporary. When the recession of that period ended, those fees became permanent, and they have escalated ever since. A similar pattern has been true of tuition increases at California State University and the University of California.

Were I still in politics, I would run for office on a promise to keep the magical possibilities of higher education affordable for today's American families, and for the next generation seeking new opportunities for their children.

I wonder why the silence from politicians is so deafening. Is it that colleges and universities are easier targets at budget time than corporate-tax loopholes are? Is it that students and faculty members are marginal players in the great game of campaign contributions? Or that college constituencies are too fragmented, divided, and transitory to unify as an effective force for change?

The recent discontent on campuses is a healthy challenge to America's priorities. I hope that Hillary Clinton hears an echo of herself before she and her colleagues become the politicians she warned us against.

[Tom Hayden is a visiting professor of sociology at Scripps College, in Claremont, Calif. His most recent book is The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama (Paradigm, 2009).]

Thanks to Carl Davidson / The Rag Blog

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29 March 2010

FILM / Peter Watkins' 'La Commune' : A Conceptual Tour de Force


By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / March 29, 2010

The Paris Commune, that is -- a citizens' revolt against a royalist government, the organizing of that revolt, and the crushing of it by government forces, all in the course of three spring months in 1871.

After staring at a screen for 345 minutes, my wife and I -- completely revved -- looked at one another, and both asked the same question: "Are we doing enough?" What an outcome from seeing a film we expected to tax our endurance.

Peter Watkins' La Commune (Paris 1871) is unlike any other political film I've seen. I've previously been appalled by suffering depicted, awed at Davids fighting huge Goliaths, frustrated, and angered, and stressed. But never before have I felt so personally challenged to think acutely through my beliefs, to measure my own action against my ideology.

Watkins achieves this effect via an astonishing conceptual move which greatly expands the potential for the art of political film. Assembling a group of 200 non-professional actors, he asked them to research their roles in the great insurrection, and to so understand the history of their characters as to be able to speak for them in interviews, in modern language, perhaps, but accurately, and with passion.

His players thus had to grapple with six different personae, three personal and three collective:

  • the historical figures, individually, and as class members at a defining moment of history;
  • themselves, as actors presenting those figures, playing them out while simultaneously judging them, a la Brecht;
  • themselves, as themselves, as individuals come together for an ambitious, artistic/political project, and also as groups, say of men vs. women.
In the course of making the film, these 200 people had to build their own commune, to establish decision-making groups around their work, and the agenda of the project itself.

What we see is startlingly unrealistic. We are shown around the "studio" by a pair of commentators from "Commune TV," dressed, as is everyone, in nineteenth century garb, but utilizing hand-held mikes for their reporting.

Written commentary flows throughout the film, describing historical events in great detail; the viewer comes out well instructed as to actual history, sometimes with modern comparisons. In general, the rhythm proceeds from these historical introductions to the scenes described, action and interviews, with frequent cuts to contrasting reports from effete anchors on National TV.

Thus, La Commune is also about the media: some news for communards, different news for the haute bourgeoisie. Commune TV itself is also critiqued, with one reporter wanting to self-censor to better serve the struggle, and the other arguing for objectivity.

In the course of scenes and interviews, we experience the difficulty of creating a just society in the midst of competing world views, strategies at odds, and varying levels of commitment -- and the threat of external force. At the same time, we come to understand the individual struggles which must occur at such potentially world-changing moments.

Beyond the designated enemy, who else is the enemy? Does a revolution require a guillotine?

Once the social/historical background is laid, the radical nature of the project emerges with increasing intensity, as Commune reporters start to intercut their interviews with different kinds of questions: Not What are you, the character, thinking?, but what are YOU, the actor, thinking about what's going on? What IS going on -- not for the character you are playing, but for YOU? Would YOU do today what your character did in history?

Such questioning begins gently, so that the actors can be reflective about their answers, but finally it intrudes, overwhelms, fiercely, passionately, right at the peak of the barricades. In the feverish pitch of their historical action, almost hysterical actors are badgered, mercilessly, about their personal reality.

The film emerges as a theater of cruelty, as these amateurs try to access such schizophrenia in the midst of their characters' life and death struggles. The level of emotional and intellectual intensity is unmatched, especially compared to the smoothness of normal, professional productions.

And it is here -- in this harassment -- that the film becomes uniquely interactive. For viewers, rather than settling into the problems of the characters portrayed, are caught up in the inquisitorial demands of the interviewer, and absolutely MUST ask themselves the kinds of questions my wife and I were forced to face. Paradoxically, it is via such a non-realistic theatrical contrivance that Watkins achieves total breakdown of aesthetic distance.


During the final third of the film the momentum becomes so great and potentially exhausting that the audience is given occasional breaks as the cast comes together to discuss the actual making of the film, the contemporary and personal politics (especially sexual) that got swept under the rug, or hidden behind the historical story.

Yet, though the tempo goes from allegro agitato to andante, one's interest is further intensified by meeting the individuals involved, and comparing their experiences with one's own.

For theater and film folks, La Commune is an outstanding primer of Brechtian technique, with a compositional strategy reminiscent of the Living Theater's Paradise Now, or Peter Brook's Marat/Sade. The emergence of Artaudian effects from Brechtian theory is nowhere better seen.

Yet the prime importance of this work is as an organizing tool. If political action in your community is plagued by low energy or lack of commitment, a viewing of La Commune should solve that type of problem, for no one can leave it at the same ethical or intellectual energy level as before. The political difficulties depicted are daunting; some might find them depressing. Yet witnessing them so clearly can warn us of our own, contemporary, traps.

This is a film of first rate importance for current political struggle.

[Marc Estrin is a writer and activist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

Find La Commune in a three-disc set from Amazon.com.

The Rag Blog

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SPORT / March Madness MVP? Baylor's Brittney Griner

Baylor's Brittney Griner. Photo from metatube.

Baylor's Brittney Griner:
The story of this year's 'Big Dance'

By Dave Zirin / March 29, 2010

A 6’ 8” freshman is changing the way we understand hoops in the 2010 NCAA tournament and unless you’re paying full attention to all the glories of March Madness, you’d never know it.

Maybe it’s because the player in question is not a fresh-MAN at all. Her name is Brittney Griner, and despite the incredible buzzer beaters and upsets in the men’s draw, she is the individual story of this year’s “Big Dance.” Griner, with her agility, quick hops, and size 17 men’s shoes, is more than just evolution in action. That would imply that there are more Brittney Griner’s in the high school pipeline. There aren’t. She is simply a player apart.

As Helen Wheelock of the Women’s Hoops Blog commented to me, “My sense is that she's unique -- not because of her skills, but because of her mere physical size/attributes -- and that her play will draw those who are curious in to be part of the viewing audience.”

If you aren’t aware of Griner, please allow me to stoke your curiosity. Her initial year of college ball has exceeded expectations with statistics that rival the first-year seasons of Lisa Leslie and Anne Donovan. But that has proven to be just an appetizer. Her tournament has been simply epic, with the only available comparison being Bill Russell.

First she set an NCAA tourney record with 14 blocked shots against Georgetown. Then against legendary Coach Pat Summit and the Tennessee Lady Vols, Griner played all 40 minutes and finished with 27 points, 10 blocked shots and seven rebounds, all while barely breaking a sweat. Baylor won 77-62 in what was basically a road game, played in Memphis. Now Griner is the first player to ever have at least 10 blocked shots in two separate tournament games.

There have been tall players in women’s hoops before. What separates Griner is that her height is matched by an agility, footwork and toughness that sees her contesting shots from the rim to the three point line. As her teammate, 5’ 10” guard Melissa Jones said, "It's my excuse. When someone drives past me, I say I wanted Brittney to get 14 blocks. I'll take credit for that.”

Before the tournament, Griner was best known for two things women players normally do not do, one notable and the other notorious: first she dunked twice in one game, a spectacle that put women’s hoops higher in the highlight rotation. Then last month, during a physical, bruising contest against Texas Tech, she punched opposing player Jordan Barncastle, bloodying her face, and was suspended for two games.

Now both the notable and notorious are in the rearview mirror. Baylor will be playing the school-that-will-not-be-named on Monday (ok, it’s Duke) to see who makes the Final Four. The winner will presumably play the utterly unbeaten and unchallenged 36-0 UCONN Huskies who haven’t lost seemingly since the Carter Administration. UCONN is epic, and we do love our sports dynasties in this country. But, like Wilt Chamberlain in his prime, are they just too good?

I communicated with USA Today’s Christine Brennan who told me,
Brittney Griner is the best thing to happen to women's basketball since UConn, and she might be even better for the game than UConn. Connecticut's dominance can cut both ways for women's hoops. It's stunning, but all those double-digit wins can depress national interest. But Griner? People will tune in to see this kid, and she's only going to get better. It's a cult-of-personality world out there in sports, and she's the new, fresh face of women's sports -- not just basketball, but all women's sports."
If Griner and her Baylor Lady Bears teammates are the only thing standing between UCONN and another title, anyone who considers themselves a hoops fan should tune in. It will be David against Goliath. But this time, David will be 6”8”, and brilliant to behold.

[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com .]

Source / The Nation

Brittney Griner. Photo from The End Zone.

The Rag Blog

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Labor Activist : Bill Fletcher Speaks to Austin Audience

Bill Fletcher. Photo by Alice Embree / The Rag Blog.

Bill Fletcher speaks to Austin audience:
Union organizing and class struggle

By Alice Embree / The Rag Blog / March 29, 2009

On Sunday night, March 28, Bill Fletcher, Jr. -- union organizer, historian, and strategist, and progressive political activist -- spoke at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin as part of the Third Coast Activist Final Sunday series. Responding to questions from UT-Austin Journalism Professor and Rag Blog contributor Bob Jensen, Fletcher said he’d be glad to take Glenn Beck on in a televised debate on class struggle.

Fletcher went on to discuss his views on working class organizing, coalescing with the community-based organizations, global capitalism, and the unprecedented income divide in this country.

[Bill Fletcher, Jr., is the co-author of Solidarity Divided, a book about labor’s role in the struggle for social justice, and is executive editor of The Black Commentator. He will speak again tonight, Monday, March 29, at 6:45 p.m., at the National Association of Letter Carriers Union Hall at 604 Williams in Austin. The event is open to the public.]

The Rag Blog

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Jonah Raskin : Marijuana Made Simple

Poster for the movie Homegrown, based on a story by Jonah Raskin.

A primer:
Marijuana made simple

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / March 29, 2010
Author, activist, educator, former Yippie, and marijuana aficionado Jonah Raskin will be Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio, Tuesday, March 30, 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP 91.7 FM in Austin. They will discuss -- among other things -- the California initiative to legalize and tax the use of cannabis. (See "Cannabis in California : The Growing Storm" by Raskin on The Rag Blog.) For those outside the listening area, go here to stream the show.
I was a latecomer to the world of marijuana. I remember in the mid-1960s a friend invited me to a party and told me that there would be pot there. You smoked it and you got high, he explained. I just laughed. I thought that the idea was ridiculous. “Where do you go when you get high?” I asked.

I didn’t find out until a few years later when I was living in New York. My friend, Aaron, who went on to law school and later became an honest, ethical judge was the first person I knew who smoked marijuana regularly. He smoked everyday. In fact, he has smoked everyday for the past 45 years.

When I first met Aaron most of the marijuana that was available came to the U.S.A. from Mexico; it was smuggled across the border. The word “marijuana” comes from Mexican Spanish and in the early racist campaigns against marijuana, it was associated with the image of lawless, dirty, violent Mexicans.

The plant is the cannabis plant; it has many active ingredients, but THC is probably the most important. I say “probably” because while cannabis has been smoked for thousands of years -- that is a fact -- there are not a heck of a lot of reliable studies of marijuana. That’s because the U.S. government, which made cannabis illegal some 70 years ago, is afraid that government financed studies will show that it has medical benefits.

It does have medical benefits, and since the 1990s it has been recommended by doctors for all kinds of health issues and problems. Indeed, it has greatly helped people suffering from HIV and AIDS. In California, medical doctors tell patients -- who have cancer and who are in pain or who have loss of appetite -- to smoke it. It stimulates appetite. It is a pain reliever. That is proven.

The domestic cultivation of marijuana really took off in the late 1970s and the early 1980s in the more remote mountain areas of Northern California. Many of the pot farmers were 1960s folk who left the cities and went back to the land to homestead.

Rural life in Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma, and Santa Cruz proved to be more challenging than the hippies realized. Marijuana came to the rescue. It was the one cash crop that they could grow and take to market and sell. The money they made enabled them to buy land, build houses, and schools and send their kids to college.

The domestic cultivation of marijuana received a big boost when Mexican marijuana was sprayed -- because of U.S. government pressure -- with Paraquat, a poisonous herbicide. Understandably no one wanted weed with poison.

The assault on marijuana came from all different directions including the Reagan White House that initiated the “War on Drugs” -- a misnomer if ever there was one. Of course, you can’t make war on drugs. The Reagan White House made war on people.

Nancy Reagan, the president’s wife, helped to popularize the slogan, “Just say No.” Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese III insisted that marijuana was “The Gateway Drug” and that it led users to heroin, cocaine, and more. Of course, Meese, Reagan, and the Reaganites never acknowledge the truth about drugs in America: that tobacco and alcohol were the “gateway drugs,” that young people started by drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.

In the War on Drugs, Meese and law enforcement officials across the nation violated the rights of citizens, and locked up thousands of marijuana smokers. The persecution has not stopped.

The anti-marijuana propaganda has been relentless ever since the 1937 movie Reefer Madness. Of course, the movies have also popularized marijuana, especially the comedies by Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong: Up in Smoke (1979) and Let’s Make a New Dope Deal (1980).

In 1979, I went to Hollywood to make a marijuana movie. My idea was for a remake of the black-and-white classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that’s about gringo prospectors for gold in Mexico. It’s a tale of greed. My movie was to be about “the greed weed” and it would be about hippies in California.

I sold the idea, and a treatment for the film, to producer and director, Stephen Gyllenhaal -- the father of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal -- but it took 16 years for it to be made. Homegrown was finally filmed in 1996, the year that a medical marijuana initiative was passed by citizens in California. By then there was also a whole new generation of marijuana smokers and the producers of the film realized that the subject was of interest to more people than aging hippies.

I was a consultant on the movie, and on the set. I have a tiny part. Everyone in the movie had to sign an agreement not to use any illegal drugs while the movie was made. The “marijuana” in the movie was not real. The plants that are shown on screen were made from silk and bamboo at a cost of $1,000 a plant.

Since 1996, marijuana cultivation and use has spread across the country. Outdoor growers moved indoors. The quality of the marijuana improved; often one puff is enough to get the smoker stoned. Recent studies show that smoking marijuana is still on the rise. It seems to be a part of the lives of millions of people -- though it is still illegal by federal law. It is still classified as a Schedule I drug which means that by U.S. government standards there are no medical benefits.

By last count, some 14 states now have recognized the medical benefits of marijuana. Doctors recommend it to patients. Dispensaries sell it at $45 for 1/8 of an ounce. The price varies, of course. As a rule of thumb, the further the marijuana has to travel from the place of cultivation the higher the price.

President Obama made a big difference in the world of marijuana when he announced that the U.S. Justice Department would not make it a priority to go after individuals who violated the marijuana laws. But in 2010, Americans are still arrested and jailed for possession and transportation of marijuana, and the prohibition of marijuana, which began just as the prohibition of alcohol ended in the 1930s, may yet go on and on.

Something, it seems, always has to be prohibited. Marijuana has long been the fall guy. The plant that was smoked in China and India thousands of years ago still does not receive the credit it deserves. Will it ever become a medical hero? It is today to thousands of people who suffered from cancer and other diseases, and it is beloved by heads who like to get stoned.

But something inside me tells me it will be regarded as a bad boy for some time to come. Alas, America is too Puritanical a place to allow marijuana to be smoked freely and without fear of punishment.

[Jonah Raskin was the Minister of Education of the Yippies and a member of SDS. These days he teaches media law at Sonoma State University in Northern California. He has written 12 books, including biographies of Allen Ginbserg, Abbie Hoffman, and Jack London. His most recent book which is about organic farming is called Field Days. He wrote the story for the marijuana movie Homegrown. He writes about drugs for High Times magazine and he is keeping close tabs on the campaigns to legalize marijuana in California. He is a regular contributor to The Rag Blog.]

Also see:The Rag Blog

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An Unaccustomed Truth : Commander McChrystal Admits to Afghan Atrocities

Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP.

Times quotes Afghansistan commander:
American atrocities turn Afghans into insurgents
“We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.” -- Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal
By Chris Floyd / March 29, 2010
Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, 'Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?'
-- Bob Dylan, Tombstone Blues
One can only assume that the regular editors of the New York Times were all out at a party, or left early for a weekend in the Hamptons, or something -- but somehow, the paper published a front webpage story that stated -- without the usual thousand excuses and extenuations -- that American troops are routinely slaughtering Afghan civilians at checkpoints. What's more, the story unequivocally ties the civilian killings to the "surge" ordered by the noble Nobel Peace laureate, Barack Obama.

Here's what the Times says:
American and NATO troops firing from passing convoys and military checkpoints have killed 30 Afghans and wounded 80 others since last summer, but in no instance did the victims prove to be a danger to troops, according to military officials in Kabul.

And what is the paper's authority for this astounding admission of atrocity? Not the usual "unnamed sources" or "senior official in a position to have knowledge of the situation," but none other than Obama's hand-picked commander on the Af-Pak front, General Stanley "Black Ops" McChrystal his own self:

“We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who became the senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan last year. His comments came during a recent videoconference to answer questions from troops in the field about civilian casualties.
Let's repeat the much-media-lauded general's statement again: “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat." Now, what would the authorities say if you or I shot "an amazing number of people who have never proven to be a threat?" Why, they would call us murderers -- even mass murderers. Yet this is precisely what "the senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan" has just declared, on videotape.

The story goes on to make the extraordinarily straight -- and indisputable -- point that these wanton killings of civilians who have never even "proven to be a threat" is fanning the very "insurgency" (which is the Beltway term of art for any resistance to American military presence") whose quelling is the ostensible reason for the Laureate's "surge" in the first place:
Failure to reduce checkpoint and convoy shootings, known in the military as “escalation of force” episodes, has emerged as a major frustration for military commanders who believe that civilian casualties deeply undermine the American and NATO campaign in Afghanistan.

Many of the detainees at the military prison at Bagram Air Base joined the insurgency after the shootings of people they knew, said the senior NATO enlisted man in Afghanistan, Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall.

“There are stories after stories about how these people are turned into insurgents,” Sergeant Major Hall told troops during the videoconference. “Every time there is an escalation of force we are finding that innocents are being killed,” he said.
The story even states plainly that the official figures of admitted killing of unthreatening civilians -- already unconscionably high -- might not be the true extent of these atrocities:
Shootings from convoys and checkpoints involving American, NATO and Afghan forces accounted for 36 civilian deaths last year, down from 41 in 2008, according to the United Nations. With at least 30 Afghans killed since last June in 95 such shootings, according to military statistics, the rate shows no signs of abating.

And those numbers do not include shooting deaths caused by convoys guarded by private security contractors. Some tallies have put the total number of escalation of force deaths far higher.

A spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, Zemary Bashary, said private security contractors sometimes killed civilians during escalation of force episodes, but he said he did not know the number of instances.
The story also presents an example of one slaughter of civilians, and shows how it leads directly to the rise of resistance against the American military presence:
One such case was the death of Mohammed Yonus, a 36-year-old imam and a respected religious authority, who was killed two months ago in eastern Kabul while commuting to a madrasa where he taught 150 students.

A passing military convoy raked his car with bullets, ripping open his chest as his two sons sat in the car. The shooting inflamed residents and turned his neighborhood against the occupation, elders there say.

“The people are tired of all these cruel actions by the foreigners, and we can’t suffer it anymore,” said Naqibullah Samim, a village elder from Hodkail, where Mr. Yonus lived. “The people do not have any other choice, they will rise against the government and fight them and the foreigners. There are a lot of cases of killing of innocent people.”
Finally, the story depicts McChrystal -- again, the handpicked commander of the commander-in-chief -- stating flatly when it comes to the widely ballyhooed "counterinsurgency doctrine" that is supposedly now governing the military occupation of Afghanistan, the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. In other words, it's a full-scale, four-star FUBAR:
More recently, General McChrystal moved to bring nearly all Special Operations forces in Afghanistan under his control. NATO officials said concern about civilian casualties caused by these forces was partly behind the decision, along with the need to better coordinate units and ensure that local commanders were aware of what was happening.

One unit could be doing counterinsurgency, while another carried out “a raid that might in fact upset progress,” General McChrystal explained during the videoconference.
Beyond the bare facts reported by the story -- i.e., the top American commanders acknowledge that their forces are killing scores of innocent civilians who pose no threat to the occupiers, and that their own incompetent policies are actually breeding more hatred and resistance -- there is also the astonishing circumstance that we have a story on the Laureate's "good war" in Afghanistan that is almost entirely nothing but bare facts.

Of course, the story appeared late on a Friday, and will no doubt disappear down the memory hole in short order... Still, I must admit that when I read the piece, I honestly did a double-take; I thought it was a hoax -- or perhaps a hack. Not because the story seemed implausible -- but precisely because it didn't, and because it was shorn of most of the self-serving, empire-justifying bullshit that surrounds accounts of the "Peace Prize Surge."

Again, just think of it, let it sink in, attend to the word of the commander: “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat." Again: “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat." Again: “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat."

Again: what do you call it when innocent, unarmed, defenseless people who "have never proven to be a threat" are gunned down in cold blood? What do you call such an act?

Source / Empire Burlesque

[A version of the Times article also appeared in the print edition.]

Thanks to Fran Hanlon / The Rag Blog

[+/-]

28 March 2010

Colombia and the TLC : Just Who Benefits from 'Free Trade'?

And we're not talking "Tender Loving Care" here. Graffiti image from Parades Que Hablan (Talking Walls).

Colombia and the TLC:
Jobs, deficits, and keeping 'free trade' alive
The organizations that stand to benefit the most from this trade agreement -- U.S. multinational corporations -- have been involved in aiding and abetting [the] bloodshed [against trade unionists].
By Marion Delgado / The Rag Blog / March 27, 2010

AT LARGE IN COLOMBIA -- On Thursday, February 18, U.S. Senator George LeMieux (R-FL), visited Colombia's President Álvaro Uribe at his ranch. His pilgrimage promoted a proposed Colombian/U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA), known locally as the Tratado de Libre Comercio (TLC).

Sen. George

After their rural meeting, LeMieux released a statement in which he said, among other things,
Colombia is a strong ally and partner of the United States. In my meeting with President Uribe, I raised the issue of trade and committed to continue encouraging ratification of the [FTA/TLC]. I again call upon President Obama to send the free trade agreement with Colombia to the United States Congress. Bilateral trade produces clear benefits including jobs in Florida and throughout the United States.

For example, more than 95% of the flowers commercially grown in Colombia come through Miami for distribution throughout the nation. That creates thousands of jobs and opportunities in the United States. Free trade produces prosperity and strengthens democracies in Latin America as well.
He didn’t mention that those “thousands” of jobs and opportunities in the U.S. already exist without the TLC. It’s almost funny; he said that Free Trade produces prosperity; the facts, which Congresspeople never seem to work into their pro-free trade statements, show that just the opposite is true.

Take the original TLC: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.

Prez George

Before leaving office, President George W. Bush of the Bush Crime Family claimed that, "From 1993 to 2007, trade among the NAFTA nations more than tripled, from $297 billion to $930 billion."


Never one to rely on facts, Bush skipped over the reality that increased trade flow only benefits an economy as long as it doesn't lead to unsustainable deficits. Much of the increased volume of trade under NAFTA was a massive surge in imports into the U.S.

A small pre-NAFTA U.S. trade surplus with Mexico in 1993 reversed into a $91 billion deficit in 2007, while a pre-NAFTA deficit with Canada grew exponentially. NAFTA foreign investor protections, which remove most of the risks otherwise associated with offshore production -- coupled with the high dollar policies of the Clinton administration -- acted as a subsidy for off-shoring U.S. jobs.

The result? A 691% increase in the U.S.' combined trade deficit with Canada and Mexico, from $24 billion in 1993 to $190 billion in 2007. This artificially induced, distorted composition of trade flows -- shaped by specific rules in NAFTA -- puts the entire region at economic risk.

Senator LeMieux was big on job creation. He obviously knows nothing of which he speaks, and as with any politician cares less, he just says what he thinks sounds good. The real facts about job creation under NAFTA tell a different story.

More facts

Trade affects the composition of jobs, not the total number. Three million net U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost under NAFTA.

The job creation claim is particularly sly, as economists know that total employment numbers and unemployment rates are not typically affected by trade policy, but by central bankers who set interest rates. In fact, they define labor force growth as simply income growth minus productivity growth.

Thus, if income growth were 2 percent and productivity growth were 1 percent, this would imply a labor force growth rate of 1 percent, or roughly 1.4 million jobs -- irrespective of trade flows.

What trade policy affects is the composition of jobs in the economy, in particular tradable sectors like manufacturing. The original claim by NAFTA boosters in 1993 that the pact would lead to 170,000 annual U.S. job gains was premised on the projection that the U.S. would have a growing trade surplus with Mexico. We were supposed to be exporting U.S.-made goods to them.

Ever since NAFTA critics' projection of increased trade deficits proved true, pro-NAFTA analysts have tried to move the discussion away from the pact's damage to U.S. workers and to focus on the combined import-export volume of trade flows' effect on overall U.S. employment rates.

Here are the relevant numbers: U.S. manufacturing employment declined from 16.8 million people in 1993 to 13.9 million people in 2007, a decrease of nearly 3 million manufacturing jobs, nearly 20% of the total. Moreover, today's $190 billion U.S. trade deficit with NAFTA countries -- as a simple accounting matter -- equals manufacturing jobs that could have been here. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the U.S. could have had over 1 million additional manufacturing jobs had there been trade balance between NAFTA countries alone, or no NAFTA at all.

Sen. George LeMeiux, Republican of Florida. Photo from AP / Politico.

Other Congressional visits

President Uribe also met with a group of U.S. Congressmen on January 9, at a working breakfast at his ranch known as Fertile Farm in Monteria, Cordoba Department, 310km Northeast of Bogota.

Among them was Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York’s 17th district (Westchester County), chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House.

The meeting marked the start of an offensive by the president to achieve, as soon as possible, ratification of the FTA/TLC by the U.S. Congress.

Uribe's purpose became clear on December 31, 2009, when he asked the U.S. to "recognize the efforts" of Colombia in the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism. A week later, he reiterated to Democratic Reps. Engel; Lynn Woolsey from Marin County, CA; Shelley Berkley, Las Vegas, NV; and Republican Marsha Blackburn from Southwestern Tennessee, (a T-bagger favorite): "I said with all honesty and with all the solidarity that we need rapid adoption of this treaty.”

What the fight against drug trafficking and “terrorism” has to do with Free Trade is beyond me.

Pending congressional approval

The FTA/TLC was signed by Presidents Bush and Uribe on November 22, 2006. When it enters into force, Colombia will immediately eliminate most tariffs on U.S. exports, with all remaining tariffs phased out over defined time periods.

The FTA/TLC also includes important rules on customs administration and trade facilitation, technical barriers to trade, government procurement, investment, telecommunications, electronic commerce, intellectual property rights, and labor and environmental protection.

Labor Protection?

If labor needs protection anywhere, it is here in Colombia. Here is the situation:

Colombia today has some of the worst labor rights violations in the world. Trade unionists are routinely murdered, tortured, and threatened with death: since 1991, over 2200 have been assassinated. Many of these extrajudicial killings have been directly linked to the Colombian Military and the President's own secret police, the Administrative Department for Security or Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS). Out of so many murders, there have been only 37 convictions. The FTA/TLC will only embolden anti-union attacks here.

The organizations that stand to benefit the most from this trade agreement -- U.S. multinational corporations -- have been involved in aiding and abetting this bloodshed. Cases have been brought against Coca-Cola, Drummond Mining Company, and Occidental Petroleum accusing them of employing paramilitaries that terrorized and killed union organizers.

Forty-three U.S. corporations have been named as having hired paracos to “protect” them from guerrillas and unions. More cases are expected to be made, and fines will be levied. (Not as cheap as the $2000 a head reportedly paid for U.S. Army/mercenary baby killing in Afghanistan, but cheap enough for the Wall Street gang.)

It should be noted that most Colombian workers and their unions are against the proposed FTA/TLC; unlike American investors, workers in Colombia have little to gain by further U.S. investment without real accountability for violence against unions and for multiple other human rights abuses.

U.S. firms will have better access to Colombia's service sector than other World Trade Organization members under the pact's General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. All service sectors are covered by the FTA/TLC except where Colombia has made specific exceptions.

Colombia's Congress approved the FTA/TLC and a protocol of amendment in 2007. Colombia's Constitutional Court completed its review in July 2008, and concluded that the FTA/TLC conforms to Colombia's Constitution.

Obama’s duplicity

In his January 27 State of the Union Speech, President Barack H. Obama said, “We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are… And that is why we will continue to shape a… trade agreement that will open…markets…with key partners like Colombia.”

To flesh out what his boss meant, deputy U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis expounded on trade policy in a morning-after speech before a gathering sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Key pillars of Obama’s trade policy, Marantis said, will include pursuing the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) -- while also pushing ratification of already-negotiated free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia. The trade agreements were each presented to Congress at least three years ago but have not been acted upon.

One big question is why Obama is pursuing free trade in the first place. As a candidate, Obama argued that the American public had been oversold on the benefits of free trade and specifically came out against the Colombia FTA. What happened?


Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Clown-in-Chief, was quick to jump on the FTA/TLC band wagon the day after BHO’s speech. "Republicans agree with the need to increase trade and with the need to ratify trade agreements with Colombia and other important trading partners that so far have met resistance on the other side of the aisle," he declared.

Mitch was referring to the reluctance of some Democrats to address the FTA/TLC created by their awareness of the thousands of murders of trade unionists since 1991. Many other union members were threatened, tortured, and driven out of their country.

For proponents, the FTA/TLC is tied as much to hemispheric politics as it is to trade. The U.S. and Colombia are strategic partners, having signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement on October 30, 2009, which gives the U.S. access to Colombian bases from which to carry out “counter-drug” surveillance flights. Colombia has proved a bulwark against the two countries’ mutual antagonist, the Bolivarian Revolutionary country of Venezuela.

Some Congressional Democrats have spoken out stridently against the FTA/TLC, criticizing the Colombian government for not doing enough to curb violence against union organizers and members.


Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV), has argued that “it is a major mistake to set up the Colombia [FTA/TLC] legislation as the proxy for support for Colombia... An FTA is not a foreign-aid package. It is neither a favor for friendly governments, nor a substitute for sensible and sustained foreign-policy engagement in the hemisphere.”

Obama may well see the FTA/TLC in strategic terms, but some think Congress is unlikely to follow that lead. One reason is that opponents -- most notably, organized labor -- comprise part of the Democrats’ political base. In addition, polls show that most Americans have turned away from free trade. A 2009 Rasmussen poll found that 73% of Americans believe that free-trade agreements have had a negative effect on their families, while only 14% say they have benefited.

With those kinds of numbers and congressional elections approaching, it is doubtful members of Congress will want to stick their necks out for free trade, at least this year.

Cartoon from Witness for Peace.

Down but not out

Does that mean the FTA/TLC is dead? Hardly. It lingers ready to go to Congress, an Obama bargaining chip to appease Republicans or to trade for their votes on some other crazy Democratic scheme.


Colombia's Trade Minister, Luis Guillermo Plata, asked the U.S. on March 9 to "be sincere and tell us if the [FTA/TLC] is going to go ahead or not." A response from the White House came the next day when U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, said, “we are hopeful we can come to some resolution with members of Congress over the next several months, if not weeks… so that we can then go back to Colombia with a finite list of what we’d like to see get done.”

Kirk said that passing the agreement with Colombia is a priority of the Obama administration. The U.S. plans to give Colombia a “workable list” of legislative and judicial reforms that the administration would like to see the South American nation execute.


Senator Charles “Chuck” Grassley (R-IA), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Finance, whined about the “apparent lack of urgency” in resolving issues surrounding the trade accord. “This delay in implementation hurts U.S. credibility around the world, not just economically but geopolitically as well.” He didn’t elaborate on how that is so, or what credibility he was referring to or what was so urgent about it.


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who bypassed Colombia on her recent South American tour, met privately with Uribe in Montevideo, Uruguay, on Monday, Mar. 1, and confirmed Washington's plans to push the FTA/TLC.

Both were there for the inauguration of President Jose Mujica, a co-founder of the Tupamaro guerrillas who spent 15 years in prison, enduring torture at the hands of the brutal, U.S. backed, military dictatorship that ruled Uruguay from 1973-1985.

A midnight vote on an unrelated bill wherein the FTA/TLC is a silent partner may be more likely than open passage. Transparency, honesty, and giving a shit about the lives of the Colombian working class (or any other workers) are never on the Capitalist agenda. It’s always about the false value of Profit.

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

27 March 2010

VERSE / Mariann G. Wizard : Pirates of Health-Care Reform

Corporate Pirate. Image from jacobdivett.

Pirates of Health-Care Reform

Of all the old pirates of story and song,
Blackbeard; and Bluebeard; John Silver, called "Long";
each had his own favorite way to do wrong!

Some liked to pillage, and some liked to loot,
some preferred swordplay, and some liked to shoot,
and some liked a gangplank for giving the boot!

But the one thing that all of them liked very best
was opening a just-grabbed treasure chest,
right in front of an unwilling guest!

"Was these your fine jools, dear?" they'd pleasantly coo,
"and was these your doubloons? Well, that will not do!"
And they'd take for themselves everything nice or new.

But at least when they did this, they didn't pretend
it was for your own good, but their larcenous ends,
upon which such thievery clearly depends!

Our modern day pirates are much more discreet,
with old school ties and nicely-shod feet,
and business arrangements so tidy and neat.

They've elected themselves to the highest posts,
bought men with money, or blackmailed their hosts;
poisoned the wells and turned us into ghosts.

There's never a sign of a saber or gun,
just fine-printed contracts and thefts quietly done,
so smooth that the robbers do not even run!

Just the money, that's all, runs away in the night
to foreign bank fortresses tucked out of sight,
in places where Empire still flexes its might.

The factories left, and all the real jobs
turned into vast slave ships, filled with poor slobs
who don't even know how bad they've been robbed.

And we, poor blighters, left holding the bag,
empty as a promise, wrapped in a flag,
have little left over but a real stone drag!

Now they've passed a new law for our pirate lords:
we're to empty our wallets or face down their swords,
in the form of new taxes and sugar-pill words.

Here's a thought for the rascals that pillage and steal:
with our dignity may go our bleeding-heart zeal!
We may soon see you lashed to the old breaking wheel!

Let's bring back the gallows, the rack, and the whip!
Catch these corporate pirates and let the cat rip!
Don't pay the ransom, you're just being clipped!

Mariann G. Wizard
27 March 2010

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

Next Nuke Nightmare? Paid for with Your Taxes

In 1979, roughly 25,000 people lived within five miles of the giant cooling towers at Three Mile Island that became symbols of the nation's worst commercial nuclear accident. Photo by Martha Cooper / AP.

We are now paying
For the next Three Mile Island

By Harvey Wasserman / The Rag Blog / March 27, 2010

As radiation poured from Three Mile Island 31 years ago this weekend, utility executives rested easy.

They knew that no matter how many people their errant nuke killed, and no matter how much property it destroyed, they would not be held liable.

Today this same class of executives demands untold taxpayer billions to build still more TMIs. No matter how many meltdowns they cause, and how much havoc they visit down on the public, they still believe they’re above the law.

Fueled with more than $600 million public relations slush money, they demand a risk-free “renaissance” financed by you and yours.

As if!

In 1980 I reported from central Pennsylvania on the dead and dying one year after. Dozens of interviews documented a horrifying range of radiation-related diseases including cancer, leukemia, birth defects, still births, malformations, sterility, heart attacks, strokes, emphysema, skin lesions, hair loss, a metallic taste and much more. As reported by the Baltimore News-American among others, such ailments also ripped through the animal population..

To this day no one knows how much radiation was released at the 1979 TMI accident, where it went, or whom it harmed. The official line that “no one was killed” is arguably the biggest lie ever told in U.S. industrial history. It is to public health what the promise of power "too cheap to meter" was to public finance.

It parallels Soviet lies about the 1986 catastrophe at Chernobyl, whose health effects continue to skyrocket. A devastating summary report issued by the New York Academy of Sciences (Yablokov, Nesterenko & Nesterenko: Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People & the Environment) says at least 980,000 people are likely to die from the fallout.

That would be a small fraction of the casualties had 9/11 terrorists dived into the two reactors at New York’s Indian Point instead of hitting the World Trade Center.

In a time of deep financial stress, it also counts that the TMI accident turned a $900 million asset into a $2 billion liability in a matter of minutes. Chernobyl has cost Belarus and Ukraine at least $500 billion and counting. And the price tag on a major meltdown anywhere in the U.S. is virtually beyond calculation.

Thus those who think a flood of new nukes will flow unimpeded into the American pocketbook haven’t been paying attention:
  1. Four northeastern nukes -- in Vermont, New Jersey, and the two at Indian Point -- are under intense public pressure to shut within the next two years. Numerous other elderly reactors are likely to go down long before any new nukes could come on line.

  2. French President Sarkozy is demanding that world financial institutions buy a bevy of new French-built reactors. But huge delays and cost-overruns at French projects in Finland and France itself have made the investment community wary to say the least, thus prompting his foot-stomping.

  3. Documents leaked from inside France’s national utility EDF indicate cost-cutting has made the new French reactor design exceedingly prone to explosion, further unsettling potential investors.

  4. The future of new U.S. reactor construction hinges on massive loan guarantees and handouts. The public number is $54 billion, but the Nuclear Information and Resource Service says the real bill could top a trillion.

  5. In the polarized, cost-conscious wake of the health care bill, and the apparent demise of cap and trade as a centerpiece of climate legislation, the idea of such huge sums flowing to a deeply polarizing energy source has become increasingly problematic. Without a clear trade-off for fossil/nuclear giveaways, and with stiffening resistance from the rightist National Taxpayers Union, Cato Institute, and Heritage Foundation, the nuke bonanza is anything but certain. The technology may now, in fact, be "too expensive to matter."

  6. An attempt by Entergy to shift six reactors into an asset-free corporate shell has been nixed by New York authorities, leaving liability for Vermont Yankee, Indian Point and other northeastern nukes in limbo.

  7. As elderly nukes stumble toward oblivion, various funds allegedly set aside for decommissioning may be significantly under-funded, deeply exacerbating the financial battles that now encircle the industry.

  8. As a lame duck, George W. Bush signed agreements apparently obligating the feds to assume responsibility for enough radioactive waste to fill two of the canceled Yucca Mountain waste dumps. The complete lack of even one such facility means the potential taxpayer bill is beyond meaningful calculation.

  9. Above all the exemption from liability for a major accident -- first perpetrated by a pro-nuke Congress in 1957 -- remains the largest potential cost to us all. Renewed by Bush in 2005, some believe the statute is clearly unconstitutional.
To this day the families of those harmed by radiation at Three Mile Island have been denied the right to make their case in federal court.

But now the shoe is on the other foot.

Desperate for cash, the nuclear industry wants us all to pay hundreds of billions for the joy of living downwind from still more Three Mile Islands for which they intend to assume NO liability.

They want our money AND our lives.

From central Pennsylvania after 31 years, the message is clear: Just Say NO!

[Harvey Wasserman’s Solartopia! is at www.harveywasserman.com, as is The Last Energy War. He is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.]

The Rag Blog

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Health Care : Lies, Damn Lies, and Republicans

Republicans and health care:
The lie as art form

By Ted McLaughlin / The Rag Blog / March 27, 2010

Since the start of the health care reform discussion last year, the Republicans have told us lie after lie. They have accused Democrats of perpetrating a huge government takeover of the health care system.

The truth is that no doctor or hospital will be taken over or run out of business. What they will have is more customers with better insurance to pay for their services. And that insurance will be purchased from private insurance companies in the free market -- either directly or through health insurance exchanges.

They have accused the Democrats of creating death panels that will choose to kill off the elderly and disabled. This is one of the most scurrilous of the lies, because none of the proposed legislation or the legislation that was actually passed ever had anything even remotely close to this. The truth is that the elderly will still be covered by Medicare, and the disabled will be covered by either Medicaid or private insurance. And both Medicare and Medicaid have been enhanced to make them function better.

They have told Americans that the new health care bill will create enormous debt for our country. And they are still telling this lie, even though the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has reported the new laws will actually lower the government deficit by over a trillion dollars in the next 10 years. It's funny how they swear by the CBO's numbers when those numbers agree with their position and ignore the numbers when they don't back up what they are saying.

They claim the new laws amount to a huge tax increase, and imply that this will apply to all Americans. It won't. There are some increases in Medicare and Medicaid taxes, but they only apply to those making more than $200,000 a year ($250,000 for a married couple). Frankly, if you make more than that in a year, you can afford a small tax increase (and that's what it is -- a small increase). It also imposes a small tax on the most expensive insurance policies -- the so-called "Cadillac" policies. You can be sure this will not affect the huge majority of working Americans with private insurance.

Now they are telling us that the new laws will cost many thousands of jobs, because the businesses will not be able to afford buying insurance or alternatively paying a tax for the employees they have. Ridiculous! This argument has the same flaw as their lie about raising the minumum wage costing jobs.

The fact is that there is only one reason a business hires workers -- because that business needs those workers to meet the demand for their products or services, and they will hire only the amount they need regardless of the wage scale or need for insurance coverage.

If they hire less than the number that is needed, then their business will suffer because they cannot meet the demand. If they hire more than needed, then it will needlessly cut into owner profits (and no businessman will do that). A business may raise it's prices to cover costs, but it will always hire only the number of workers needed -- not more and not less.

When demand goes up, more workers will be hired. When demand goes down, workers will be laid off. That's just the way it is in a capitalist system (and all costs are figured into prices and expected profit margin).

Now they are telling Americans that the new law will force doctors to refuse to accept Medicare and Medicaid patients. This is already a problem in many places, but it has nothing to do with the new laws. Do you know who is to blame? THE REPUBLICANS -- because in their years in power they repeatedly cut the payments to doctors for Medicare and Medicaid patients. They have always hated these programs and the cuts were an effort to destabilize the programs. Hopefully the Democrats will fix this inequity if the new laws don't.

But the biggest lie, the most outrageous lie, they are now telling is that they are in favor of health care reform (just not the reform passed by Democrats). Well if they were really in favor of health care reform, why didn't they do it when they were in control (and had a Republican president for eight of those years). They had a golden opportunity to enact reform on their terms, but did nothing. They spent billions on unnecessary wars and corporate giveaways, but did absolutely nothing to fix the health care system.

It was obvious (and frustrating to many progressives) that President Obama reached out to the Republicans for bipartisan action on reforming health care. Every time he was snubbed. The Republicans had made a decision that they would oppose any effort at reform, because they believed if Obama failed to deliver on health care reform that would help them at the polls. They were more concerned with party politics than helping Americans access needed health care.

These are only a few of the more egregious lies the Republicans have told to try to stop health care reform and protect the profits of Big Insurance and Big Pharma. There were many others. I had hoped the lies and obstructions would stop now that "Obamacare" is law, but if Senator John McCain is to believed it looks like that won't happen. McCain said the Republicans were so mad about the passage of these two health reform bills that "There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year."

I really hope that is just another Republican lie, because important things remain to be done and Republican lies and obstructionism will just make it harder (though not impossible). Let me finish with an excellent quote I found on a friend's blog (a gal and her blog):

In my life I've heard that: civil rights for people of color would destroy this country, Medicare would destroy this country, environmental protections would destroy this country. It must be indescribably horrible to live one's life in fear as these folks seem to be doing.
Now the Republicans are telling us that health care reform will destroy our country. Don't believe them as they try to spread fear. It's just another of their many lies.

[Rag Blog contributor Ted McLaughlin also posts at jobsanger.]

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